The Baltimore Sun: Trump tariffs mean uncertainty for booming Port of Baltimore

Lee Connor, a freight forwarder and customs broker at the Port of Baltimore, says it’s too early to gauge the whole impact President Donald Trump’s tariffs on steel, aluminum and other products could have on trade through the booming shipping hub.

But already, he says, he’s seen some effects.

Connor, president of the century-old John S. Connor Inc., was making improvements to its warehouse at the port this year. Since Trump raised a tariff on imported steel in March, the cost of the project has risen: Connor’s contractor told him his pipe supplier had to raise prices by 17 percent.

“The impact now is not huge,” Connor said. “But there’s a lot of concern about where this is going.”

The Port of Baltimore saw a record 21.6 million tons of trade for $28 billion during the first half of 2018. But analysts say Trump’s tariffs, and retaliatory measures by China and other trade partners, will be a drag on that growth going forward — and one that could grow if the tit-for-tat escalates into a fully fledged trade war.

While Trump has levied or threatened tariffs on Canada, Mexico and the European Union, he has focused his attention on China. Baltimore does not have the same exposure to a Sino-American trade war as West Coast ports, but if world commerce slows, it can still expect a hit to traffic.

“The next quarter will be really telling, because the tariffs will be in full effect at that point,” said Daraius Irani, chief economist at Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute. “Because the port is just a facilitator of exports and imports, anything that impacts world trade is going to impact the port.”

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who represents the port, worries that Trump’s rhetoric and moves could slow business at a facility that employs more than 13,000 workers directly and an additional 127,000 indirectly.

“It’s like he’s playing a game of chicken with the global economy,” the Baltimore County Democrat said. “You can’t taunt trading partners and think there won’t be repercussions.”

Ruppersberger says he supports efforts to push back against some of China’s trade abuses. But he said Trump is acting without a plan or any expertise in the subject. He doubts that “trying to bully China” — which ranks in the top five countries in both imports and exports through the port, for roughly $5 billion in trade annually — will work.

Baltimore area businesses brace for tariffs on steel and aluminum imports
“This is serious,” Ruppersberger said. “It’s nothing to fool with.”

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